While Mark Twain’s close bond with Congregationalist minister Joseph Twichell is well known among Twainians, the friendship he shared with another man of the cloth, the Rev. Moncure Conway, often receives little more than passing reference.
We read mostly of Conway’s role as Twain’s literary representative in England or of his glowing review of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Occasionally there’s a reference to the time he helped Twain arrange a surprise visit for Olivia Clemens to the grave of her beloved Shakespeare, or Conway’s letter to the New York Times defending Twain’s anti-imperialism and pointing out that “Mark Twain’s humor is apt to feather a serious arrow.”
Beyond these and a smattering of other examples, Twain scholarship (and history in general) has little to say about Conway, which is odd considering the wide-ranging influence this “most thoroughgoing white male radical produced by the antebellum South” had on Twain’s era.
With a family background rooted in America’s past, Moncure Conway would spend much of his life lighting out for new territories.
As a descendant of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Conway was born into an elite, slave-owning family in Virginia. Despite his Southern aristocratic background, he became an outspoken radical abolitionist who not only personally advised Lincoln to make the Civil War about emancipation, but helped 31 of his father’s slaves escape to Ohio. An ardent egalitarian, he also advocated that suffrage be extended to freed slaves and women alike.
Reflecting a lifelong spiritual restlessness, Conway’s ministerial calling was mercurial and evolved throughout his life. Starting off as a circuit-riding Methodist preacher in Maryland, he went on to becoming a Unitarian minister after graduating from Harvard Divinity, where he was a protégé of Emerson, his “spiritual father.” When his abolitionism, coupled with his increasingly pointed critiques of Christianity, ran afoul of many old-line Unitarians, Conway left the Unitarian pulpit to emerge as a leading light in the free religion movement and the comparative study of religions (with an eye toward Eastern religions). In the years leading up to the Civil War, he also participated in the Underground Railroad and edited The Dial, the esteemed Transcendentalist journal that was “free in thought, doubt, utterance, knowledge, and love.”
While arguing the Northern cause in England during the Civil War, Conway was embroiled in controversy after secretly attempting to negotiate peace on his own with the Confederate envoy there (offering the South disunion if it agreed to free its slaves). No longer welcome in his native South and reprimanded by the North, Conway lived out much of his adult life as an expatriate in England, where he served as minister of South Place Chapel, one of the oldest freethought organizations in Britain (still active today as Conway Hall Ethical Society in London).
Conway met Twain in 1872, marking the beginning of a friendship that ended with Conway’s death in 1907. The two refugee Southerners shared much in common, including unorthodox religion, fondness for American revolutionary Thomas Paine (about whom Conway wrote a definitive biography) and humorist Artemus Ward, at whose funeral Conway officiated in 1867. Tragically, both Conway and Twain also suffered the loss of a young son (Emerson Conway in 1864 and Langdon Clemens in 1872).
For a good overview of Conway, I recommend watching The Empty Niche: The Long Lost Bust of Moncure Conway.
Produced by the Conway Hall Ethical Society, this hour-long film is not a biography, and it hardly mentions Twain. However, this video’s interesting story of Conway Hall’s quest to track down a bronze bust of Conway that vanished nearly a century ago sheds light on this radical minister, free-thinking intellectual, and spiritual pilgrim and how his legacy still endures even as memory of the man has faded.